The Connecticut Joint Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard testimony regarding a state senate bill, SB 1060, which seeks to add definitions and procedures concerning “coercive or controlling behavior” to the Nutmeg State’s domestic violence laws. Such tactics include psychological and financial abuse. The bill, nicknamed Jennifer’s Law, is named after Connecticut homicide victim Jennifer Magnano and presumed Connecticut homicide victim Jennifer Farber Dulos. Both women were embroiled in contentious family custody proceedings with their former partners when they died.
Among the many who testified was actress Evan Rachel Wood.
Warner said in a response post that his “intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners” and that his accusers “are now choosing to misrepresent the past.”
Wood testified in the Connecticut hearing that she was “groomed into an abusive relationship” with a man 20 years older while she was a teenager. She accused him of “sabotaging relationships” with friends and family; “monitoring when I ate and slept,” withholding food, controlling her finances, taking photos of her naked, and hacking her phone and social media so she “could not reach out for help.”
Wood supported the senate bill.
“Multiple forms of isolation and control against one person can be deadly,” she said. “I had been successfully trapped, and the sexual and physical abuse became severe. If I had been educated about coercive control, I may have been able to spot the signs.”
Wood said something needs to be done before more victims are killed but said an ongoing criminal probe likely prevented her from saying too much about her personal experience.
State Sen. Alex Kasser (D) asked whether the alleged abuse became physical.
“At times, it did leave physical injury,” Wood said. “At times, I was drugged so I would wake up in the middle of it, and at times I was threatened into doing things that would be videotaped and photographed that I did not want to do — that I was afraid to say no to — because I was terrified of him and of what he could do and of any further violence. And then he had leverage over me. If I wanted to leave, he would threaten to release things or show people, and I didn’t think anybody would ever believe me. So, I was afraid of my reputation being destroyed.”
Kasser noted “revenge porn” was a “very powerful weapon to break a person’s spirit, their will, and their freedom.” The senator then asked if a legal definition of coercive control — which is what Connecticut is considering — should include elements of sexual assault.
“All of these things should be looked at in [their] totality,” Wood said.
The actress then said there were “numerous victims” of her abuser who all have the “same story and the same pattern to compare.”
“It’s quite obvious this is something that is calculated, and the intention is to isolate and control and abuse,” Wood said. “I think if you zoom out and look at each story and each pattern, the sexual violence was always a part of it, so, I think it does matter.”
Kasser asked about the abuser’s intent — and whether any legal definition of coercive or controlling behavior should require a finding of intent.
“If you told the court everything you just told us” regarding “actions and patterns and ongoing abuse,” Kessler questioned, “do you think it would be fair to prove his intentions, his state of mind, as an additional legal requirement, or should the actions or patterns of actions speak for themselves?”
Wood said that under a future, hypothetical case, intent should not be a victim’s legal burden to prove; rather, she said it should be inferred by the courts.
“I actually tried to get a restraining order, and I was denied or told I wouldn’t be able to obtain one because I didn’t have any recent, direct threats, even though this person would often send me videos and of memes of — you know — being stuck into the wall . . . or, you know . . . hacking into an Amazon account and ordering films with threatening titles and things like that,” the actress testified. “While that is not a direct threat, I know what that means. I know it’s directed at me. I know he’s trying to scare me . . . these are things on their own that probably would not be grounds to get a restraining order, but if I could show . . . a pattern of behavior, I think it would be much more effective. But, no, I couldn’t get a restraining order when I wanted one.”
Rep. Christine Palm (D) asked Wood whether she discussed the alleged abuse with her colleagues in the acting world.
“Any time there’s a high-profile person involved, the burden of proof becomes higher,” Wood said. “You are questioned much more about what your intentions are; whether you’re after money; whether you’re after fame. It raises the bar quite a bit, and I was turned away many times. It wasn’t until there were a plethora of victims that I really felt like it was being taken seriously. It shouldn’t take that many people, I don’t believe.”
Rep. Palm said Hollywood had been full of coercive control and sexual abuse dating back to the 1930s; she then decried victim shaming.
Sen. Saud Anwar (D) asked Wood whether social media or family members were used by her alleged abuser.
“My social media accounts were hacked, so all of my messages were being monitored: who I followed; who I was speaking to privately. It made it very difficult to reach out for help. He would also send people messages posing as me to sabotage relationships or to get me into trouble,” the actress said. “I didn’t have my family used against me for coercion; I was just completely isolated from them. Because I was being monitored, I couldn’t reach out for help. I couldn’t speak to them. In the beginning, he was nice to them, but slowly — the analogy I like to use for coercive control is ‘the lobster is slowly boiling in the pot.’ You don’t realize that you’re being boiled until it’s too late. It happens gradually and slowly, and then suddenly you realize, oh, ‘I can’t pick up the phone and call my parents about this person threatening me, or cornering me in our bedroom, or breaking things.'”
“When somebody breaks something near you or in front of you, what they’re saying is, ‘this can be you. I’m exerting my power,'” Wood continued. “While they may not say a direct threat, you’re afraid of them because they’re being violent. My abuser threatened me constantly, but he was very smart about not providing any written threats, and a lot of the threats happened behind closed doors. It’s just your word against theirs, and it can be hard to prove. That’s one of the reasons why isolation is so important to [abusers] and why coercive control is used to isolate, because it makes [abuse] increasingly more difficult to prove.”
Sen. Anwar, a medical doctor, asked about the “lasting physical damage” which the alleged abuse caused.
“I’m still dealing with it,” Wood said. “It happened over 15 years ago, and I’m also still being terrorized by my abuser. He’s still not in jail. And my family as well. It’s an ongoing thing, and the patterns are still the same.”
Sen. Kasser asked whether additional screening techniques could have helped catch the alleged behavior earlier in its cycle.
Wood said she was “incredibly young” when the alleged abuse occurred and was “therefore easier to manipulate.”
“I think the right questions would have given me that ‘aha moment’ — which happened years later once I entered therapy and did start educating myself and was familiar with the power and control wheel,” she said.
Wood testified in the remote hearing via voice connection only; she said her internet was spotty and did not turn on her camera.
Others also testified.
Erica Schwedel, Jennifer Dulos’s next-door neighbor, said she “knew Jennifer as a gracious neighbor, as a kind person, and most of all as a loving mother to her five young children.”
“Tragically, Connecticut’s laws were not strong enough to protect her from harm when she took courageous action to move to New Canaan to start anew . . . many of us will carry the scars of losing her,” she said.
Schwedel said it was not apparent that Dulos was a victim of domestic violence.
“I did not know until she was gone what lay underneath,” she added. “She was such a strong person to make the move out and to recognize the situation she was in was unhealthy for herself and unhealthy for her children. I just feel the loss of the tragedy — that even somebody who was so strong, who made all the right moves and did all the right things still wasn’t able to protect herself and ultimately isn’t able to be there for her children going forward. And that’s just deeply sad.”
David Magnano was blunt. His mother, Jennifer Magnano, was killed in his presence in 2007; the new coercive control bill is one of several named after her.
“It is dangerous to be a woman in Connecticut, especially if your name is Jennifer,” he said.
Magnano testified that he heard the gunshot which killed his mother. He recalled checking his mother’s body to see if she was still alive. It bothered him that his mother’s body was left “out in the open” as police led him and his sister from his family’s home.
“I will never forget having to completely cover my sister’s eyes as she screamed that she wanted to see mom — while I whispered to her that I wouldn’t let her live the rest of her life with the images I now had to live with,” he said. “The lack of sensitivity shown by police when dealing with minors to this day leaves me dumbfounded.”
A 2009 state report about Jennifer Magnano’s death called Connecticut’s system a “colossal failure.”
Kailani Carlson, who identified herself as a “protective mom trying to keep [her]self and [her] child safe from continued abuse,” testified that “many standard court practices are harmful to children in DV cases.”
“Coercive control is being used as a weapon in the courtroom where strategic legal tactics by my ex partner are being used to invalidate my allegations of abuse and invalidate what my children and I have experienced,” Carlson testified.
“The courts have failed to integrate . . . highly credible scientific research while being poisoned by unscientific alienation theories discredited by the APA and ABA and all other legitimate professional organizations,” she said. “As a result, the research shows courts are getting a high percentage of abuse cases wrong, and I had one of those cases.”
She testified that a Connecticut State Trooper and a Guardian Ad Litem “enabled” her former partner’s coercive control despite her former partner being arrested “for trying to murder” her. She said her alleged abuser “kidnapped my child and held us both captive on two different occasions,” “perjured himself on every court affidavit,” and “has never been held accountable.”
“Nobody would ever let me speak about it in family court,” she claimed. “The judges would hush me.”
“If we had Jennifer’s Law, it would have directed the court to view all of the evidence . . . I would have been allowed to speak in court openly of our fears and been taken seriously instead of feeling re-victimized by the coercive control in family court.”
She summed up by saying court authorities were not properly trained to identify coercive behavior. She said she was hung up on and disregarded by agencies and authorities she attempted to contact for help — and ended up tapping into her own survival instincts to preserve her family.
“I can imagine the helplessness and hopelessness that Jennifer Dulos felt every time she spoke about her abuse to anyone in family court and was never taken seriously. I understand that,” she said.
“We’re still in danger,” Carlson said of her own family.
State Sen. Kasser suggested coercive control training needed to be a part of all court proceedings, including custody and family court matters.
In response to questions posed by Rep. Palm, Carlson said the state police placed her in even greater danger by giving her ex-partner her “new identity” and the location of her “new, safe, relocated address.” She said she considered moving to a new country to escape.
Prof. Christine Cocchiola testified that her own ex-husband was a coercive and manipulative man who “weaponized” the couple’s children against her at the ages of nine or 10.
She said her ex sent her more than 3,000 emails suggesting her children would “never love” her and that she would “lose everything” if she left. She said he threatened her by leaving bullets on her desk.
“He seemed to always know my every move,” she said. “I later found out that my car was tracked, my computer hacked, and my phone monitored for years.”
Cocchiola said her children became “pawns” in domestic manipulation situations — and that both professional counselors and legal authorities were not equipped to understand or to handle the situation.
“So, you are a licensed clinical social worker, and yourself did not realize you were a victim of coercive control all those years?” State Sen. Kasser asked Cocchiola.
The senator then asked whether new clinical screening tools would help identify future victims whose abuse was psychological, not physical.
Cocchiola agreed that treatment checklists for counselors, the police, and judicial authorities needed to be updated to help identify nonphysical coercive abuse.
“Significant phychological trauma and victimization of a child” can create a “complex post-traumatic stress disorder not easily understood or identified,” she noted.
She said her friends and family helped her get through through the alleged abuse but said the legal system did not — in part because nonphysical abuse would have been difficult to prove in court under existing laws and because her former husband knew the local cops.
“I had 3,000 harassing, threatening emails,” Cocchiola said. “I actually, unfortunately, was not treated well by the police, and they did not take me seriously. He apparently was friends with the police.”
It took three months for her ex-husband to be arrested despite the emails and the bullets she mentioned as evidence.
“As a researcher, I will continue to focus on how to ensure that we continue to look at coercive control through the lens of the child,” Cocchiola said. “I hope that you, too, are able to support this bill . . . for all of the Jennifers that have experienced coercive control and unfortunately the Jennifers who have passed away due to homicide of coercive control.”
Lisa Johnson testified that she has been embroiled in district and appellate court divorce litigation since 2015. She said has filed hundreds of docket pleadings, appeared in court more than 70 times just in the last three years, spent more than $100,000 on attorneys, and ultimately decided to handle her own appeals without an attorney’s assistance. She said there was “no end in sight” to her legal proceedings because her former partner was “stalking [her] through the courts” and using them as a “weapon . . . to maintain control.”
“The failure of Connecticut courts to enforce their own orders has emboldened him,” she said in reference to various contempt orders. “The very system which was supposed to provide the relief” she was “promised on paper” had simply not worked, she said.
Johnson said she didn’t get help for her daughter until she solicited assistance from an agency in neighboring New York State. She said Connecticut, by comparison, was not properly investing in its children’s safety.
[Featured image: Evan Rachel Wood via Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Jennifer Dulos via New Canaan, Conn. Police Dept.]
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